There are only a few universal truths in the modern NBA. Stephen Curry as the greatest shooter ever is an easy one, a distinction so obvious it no longer requires real debate. Nikola Jokic’s passing skill as a center has reached a similar level. With apologies to Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Kevin Love and others, Jokic established himself as the greatest passing big man in history well before the start of this season.
Jokic has been considered one of the very best players in the league for a couple years now, but it’s important to remember he’s still only 25 years old. His game seemed to reach new heights during Denver’s inspired run to the Western Conference Finals last season after coming back from 3-1 series deficits against the Utah Jazz and heavily favored Los Angeles Clippers in the bubble. At the start of the new season, it appears Jokic is leveling up again.
If the NBA handed out its MVP award right now, Denver’s center would have a compelling case. He’s averaging a career-high in points, assists, and rebounds, all while scoring more efficiently than ever before. The Nuggets are only 9-7 to start the season, currently the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, but their slow-ish start hasn’t been Jokic’s fault.
Here’s how and why Jokic has been perhaps the NBA’s most impressive player so far.
Jokic is fully tapping into his creation ability
How does the best passing big man of all-time become even more impactful as a playmaker? By upping his usage, turning up his aggression and creativity, and daring opponents to try to stop it at their own risk.
The Nuggets are running mostly everything through Jokic this season. His usage rate is currently at 29.1 percent, a new career-high and up from 26.6 percent last season. An increase in opportunity has led to Jokic becoming even more emboldened with the types of passes he feels comfortable throwing.
Maybe we should have saw it coming from the moment he threw a blind pass over his head in the playoffs last year. Jokic is throwing some wild passes this season. Like this one:
And this one:
Stope me if you've heard this before: Nikola Jokic makes this pass look 30x easier than it actually is. pic.twitter.com/8MkyjEPPpv— Orange is the New Openly Black (@NekiasNBA) January 20, 2021
And this one:
This is what I was talking about. I knew the ball came out of Jokic's hands before he threw it to Harris in the corner. Also one of the best example of #waterpoloJokic I've ever seen. pic.twitter.com/BxZUyPXwAN— Mike Singer (@msinger) January 18, 2021
More than a quarter of the way through the season, Jokic is second in the NBA in assists at 9.7 per game, edged out by James Harden but in front of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Chris Paul, and others. His assist percentage has increased from 35 percent last season 44.7 percent this season, which trails only Doncic. Only Domantas Sabonis is averaging more passes made per game than Jokic (76 per game), and he’s being fourth in points created off assists behind guards Russell Westbrook, Doncic, and Harden.
With Jokic as their hub, the Nuggets have the third best offense in the NBA. There is simply no other big man in the world capable of mastering playmaking duties like Jokic has. No other center in the league is averaging more than the 4.3 assists per game from Karl-Anthony Towns. Jokic is legitimately lapping his peers in terms of his passing acumen.
Jokic is scoring more efficiently than ever, too
Jokic has averaged 20 points per game just once beforre, when he put up 20.1 points in the 2018-19 season. This year’s he’s averaging 25.8 points per game and he’s doing it on the best scoring efficiency of his career.
Jokic’s passing numbers are up in part because teams have to respect his scoring even more. He is one of the very best post scorers in the game, a 285-pound behemoth in a league that’s constantly downsizing. Jokic has logged 102 possessions in the post thus far, and is averaging .951 points per possessions on those opportunities, per Synergy Sports. While that only ranks in the 64th percentile, almost everyone in front of him has a fraction of as many opportunities. Only fellow MVP candidate Joel Embiid can match his combination of volume of efficiency down low.
Kamentzky has no chance against Jokic in the post and CP has to be start cheating over for help just to discourage Jokic from the spin. pic.twitter.com/L8EIwzPHhs— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) January 24, 2021
Jokic is simply too big and too skilled to single cover in the post. When teams send a double at him, they’re leaving someone open for the greatest passing big man ever.
This is too easy for Jokic.
Jokic is making 60.7 percent of his two-point shots right now. His newfound aggression has also helped him get to the foul line more than ever. His free throw rate of 34.3 percent is a career high, and he remains a great free throw shooter at 83.3 percent from the foul line. To put that in perspective, Michael Jordan was an 83.5 percent free throw shooter for his career.
Jokic is also growing more and more comfortable letting it rip from three. While his three-point rate has dropped slightly this year, the attempts he is taking are ones he’s comfortable attempting. Jokic is hitting 35.3 percent of his threes, up from 31.4 and 30.7 each of the last two seasons, respectively.
Put it all together and Jokic has a 63.9 true shooting percentage that ties his career-high. Only Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Embiid can match Jokic’s scoring efficiency at his same level of usage.
Jokic is leading the league in almost every ‘all-in-one’ stat
Pick a metric that captures value in one number and there’s a good chance Jokic is tops in the NBA right now. Here are a few:
- Jokic is No. 1 in wins above replacement, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric
- Jokic is tops in estimated plus minus by a significant margin
- Jokic leads the league in box score plus-minus, win shares, and value over replacement player, according to basketball-reference
If you’re more familiar with a stat like PER, Jokic is at the top of the league in that one, too.
The Nuggets still have plenty of room for improvement around Jokic
While Denver begins the week in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture, it still feels like their start has been a little underwhelming. There are plenty of reasons for it. You can point to the lack of versatile wings on the roster, the absence of Michael Porter Jr. due to Covid-19, or the inability of Jamal Murray to maintain his level of play from the bubble.
The Nuggets have still never put a bunch of great shooters on the floor next to Jokic. The team is No. 19 in three-point rate on the season, and No. 12 in percentage. Murray is only hitting 33.3 percent of his threes, and Gary Harris is making just 31.7 percent of his threes. When you have arguably the best post scorer in the league who doubles as an unprecedented passer for his position, it stands it reason that dotting the perimeter with knockdown shooters could really boost the offense.
Jokic’s actual chances of winning MVP this season likely hinge on Denver’s record. Right now, the Nuggets are 3.5 games behind the Lakers and Clippers for the top seed. Utah and Portland remain in front of them in the standings as well. There haven’t been many true centers to win MVP in the last two decades, but Jokic and Embiid are the two most deserving candidates so far.
Jokic was already an elite player before this season. What he’s showing right now is that he’s still getting better.